A Missiology for the Academy (1): The University as an Unreached People Group

Located in the heart of modern Germany is a small town called Fritzlar, which was called Geismar during the middle ages. In the middle of Fritzlar stands an ancient stone cathedral, and at the front of the cathedral is a statue of a monk standing upon a tree stump, wielding a large axe. The statue depicts a Christian missionary monk Boniface, and the stump depicts the remains of the “Oak of Thor” which served as the spiritual power-center of the pagan religion of that day.

When Boniface arrived in Geismar in the early 8th century, he found that most Germans were pagans, and the few German Christians retained their involvement in spirit worship and magical arts even after they professed Christianity. He was convinced that if he were to “fell the tree of paganism” he would need to cut out its roots.

One day he traveled to the Oak of Thor with his axe in tow, surrounded by a crowd of pagans who mocked him, cursed him, and prayed for the pagan gods to intervene and destroy him as he sought to fell the tree. As the crowd looked on in horror, Boniface began chopping down the tree. According to some commentators, a strong wind helped Boniface finish the job. After he felled the oak, many local pagans converted to Christ. The word spread and soon thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of Germans turned to Christ.

As I’ve reflected on this story over the years, I’ve come to see an analogy between Boniface’s task in his day and our task in the 21st century. Just as Boniface “took the battle to the front lines” by striking a blow to the Oak of Thor, so we must take the battle to the front lines by striking blows to the most deeply ingrained idols in our current contexts.

Boniface served as a missionary to an unreached people group—the Hessian Germans—and had the nerve to chop down their central idol as a way of showing that Christ is Lord. In like manner, we have an opportunity to reach an unreached people group—the Academy—and chop down many of the idols that flourish in its environment.[1] The University is a teeming ecosystem of idolatry, providing a lush environment in which students may cultivate an inordinate love for sex, money, power, success, and the approval of man. These types of idols exist in a co-dependent relationship and foster the “isms” that dishonor God and disable human flourishing—isms such as consumerism, relativism, eroticism, naturalism, and scientism.

During the 20th century, the evangelical world at large abdicated its responsibility to the Academy. Although we started some fine Christian institutions, we mostly ignored the need to shape the professorate and the curriculum at major state universities and private colleges. As a result, we have little hand in shaping what is perhaps the most influential sector of American society and of many global societies. While state universities and influential private universities are busy shaping the minds and hearts of young people across the globe, evangelicals have been largely absent.

If evangelicals wish to be faithful to our Lord in the 21st century, we must find ways to proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives in university contexts, both here in the West and around the globe. Why do the universities matter for the Christian mission? Over the course of the next two installments, I will argue that they should matter because of (1) the universality of Christ’s Lordship; (2) the powerful influence of the university; (3) the readily receptive mindset of university students; (4) the breadth of Christ’s atonement; and (5) the danger of “split-level Christianity.” Finally, (6) I will provide three suggestions for action.

[1] The university is not a “people group” in the social scientific sense of the world, or in the normal missiological sense of the word. For this present blogpost, I use the phrase as a simile and a metaphor, taking the phrase out of its normal context and applying it in a new context (the university) in order to draw attention to our need to build a missiology for the academy.


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  1. Cody Lorance   •  

    Bruce, I agree with everything you have said except that I think it is a mistake to refer to the university as a UPG. The point of the term throughout its development (Towsend’s founding of Wycliffe in the 1930s, McGavran’s 1955 “Bridges of God”, Winter’s 74 Lausanne speech, the founding of the USCWM in the 80s, the Chicago 82 consultation, the AD2000 movement, the inception of people group research especially exemplified by the Joshua Project and People groups.org) has been to identify those ethnolinguistic groups which cannot be reached except by cross-cultural evangelism. The University is not an ethnolinguistic group, nor for that matter are college students. To refer to them as such creates confusion and potentially distracts important attention away from genuine UPGs which have been without an indigenous witness to Christ for 2000 years. And while certainly we must do more to reach students, the simple fact that college students have been a key part of every major mission movement in modern times (haystack, SVM, Urbana), tells you that they have lo g benefitted from the kind of vibrant witness that so many peoples, tribes, and tongues have not. So, while I’m looking forward to what you will say about the university in the coming days, I urge you not to refer to it as a UPG. Blessings.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Cody, hi and thank you for weighing in. Yes the common use of the phrase “people group” is different from the way I am using it. I am using it analogically. The universities have their own conceptual languages and sub-cultures. If we build a missiology for the universities, the natural overflow of that is the reaching of the ethnolinguistic people groups to which you refer. Many of the students on these campuses in China, India, Saudi Arabia, etc., are members of the unengaged tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. Thank you for taking the time to read the blog and join the conversation!

  3. John Sanders   •  

    Dr. Ashford, I am a graduate of SEBTS as of last May but never had you as a professor so know you by reputation only. I am intrigued with this blog series and after proper foundation, await the possible application points you have. Last fall, I returned home with my M.Div and enrolled in a simple vocational class at my home town community college in order to be outside of the Christian bubble and living intentionally and missionally among the college students in my class. I applied for a teaching position and now I teach a New Testament Survey course at a public state supported community college. I have been amazed at the gospel conversations I have had. Look forward to following this blog and thank you for insights in capturing the Academy w/ the gospel.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    John, thank you. What you are doing is one of the things I give as a practical point of action in the third installment. May your tribe increase! Thank you for your kind words and for your kingdom-minded intentionality on college campuses. You da man.

  5. Aaron   •  

    Hey Bruce,

    Great post. However, first I’d have to agree with Cody. I think our language is incredibly important especially when it comes to Unreached People Groups. Reality is, even university students in the United States have FAR better access to the gospel than those who are actually live amongst UPGs. Blurring the definitions only lend us to backtracking in the task of sending people to the unreached, which I think is disastrous especially when you consider that less than 10% of all the world’s missionaries are actually going to these UPGs.

    But besides for language, I am very intrigued by this post and think your on to something incredible. My question would be, besides the typical campus ministry models, what other ways could we reach universities for Christ? Looking forward to reading the subsequent posts.



  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thanks man! In regards to your question, i’ll answer it very specifically in the last installment, and will answer it at a 30,000-foot level in the second installment. One important thing is to work hard to get evangelical professors into universities.

    On the UPG language, i agree that the primary use of the phrase is ethnolinguistic people groups. But i’m using it metaphorically here and that’s teh power of its use. The Bible calls Jesus a lamb, calls the word of God a hammer, etc. It takes the word out of its normal context in order to grab people’s attention and make a point. That’s what i wanted to do in this article.


  7. Jon Sapp   •  


    Great to see you and others joining in on this very important subject. I hear the others with concern for the use of UPG. After working in Africa and seeing the importance of focus, I hear them. However, the university campus needs the same focus. While the Suba, Fulani and the various clans of the peoples in the Horn of Africa all need a clear presentation of the gospel and committed and incarnational messengers, that does not weaken the need we have today for the same missional approach to the campus. I look forward to the ongoing discussion on this topic. Today’s campus needs what you are talking about… thanks!!


  8. Blake   •  

    The Student Volunteer Movement began evangelizing universities and organizing missionaries in the late 1800s. In 1939, InterVarsity chapters began to be organized across the US. In 1949, Navigators started to reach out to college campuses (it was originally a ministry to Navy servicemen). Campus Crusade was founded in 1951. IV, Navs and Cru are all over the US and have presences at every major university in the country. Today, besides these three, there are numerous smaller independent ministries and plenty of denominational collegiate ministries.

    I don’t think evangelicals have abdicated or ignored anything when it comes to colleges. I’m certainly not suggesting we’re doing plenty; more campus ministry and support of existing ministries would certainly be welcome and is necessary. However, Bruce, you are coming off as a bit alarmist, as if what does exist is of little consequence or impact. I agree with your tone, that universities are largely not being considered by evangelicals as places to minister, but neglect (at worst) and abdicate suggest very different realities. I look forward to the rest of your posts, but please keep in mind how much work has already gone into this area, both ministry and missiology. I hope your posts do bring more people to consider and get their churches involved in mission to college students.

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jon, thanks for checking in! In the third installment, I’ll mention the need to get Christian profs into universities in Africa.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thank you for joining the conversation. When it comes to campus evangelization of college students, I agree with you completely. Not only have we not neglected or abdicated, we’ve actually focused on it quite a bit. However, this blog series will focus on a different aspect of the university, and I will argue that most of us have neglected the need to place Christian professors in prominent teaching posts. We’ve also not done well at shaping the college disciplines (arts, sciences, etc.) so that they reflect God’s creational design. As a result, we have almost no influence at the major state universities, Ivy League schools, etc.

    I’m interested to hear if you’ll agree with me once the three installments have rolled out.


  11. Nate   •  

    Bruce, thank you for drawing attention to this subject. We are planting a church on a campus that is well under 10% Christian and has 25,000 students. Yes they have many great ministries such as Navs that reaches some, but a ministry of 200 is merely a scratch on the surface. Having grown up on the mission field and understanding what unreached people groups are I would wholeheartedly agree with your analogy.
    I am not surprised by the reaction to your thoughts, for we get that question all the time. In the South US universities may feel “churched” but it is fully untrue in the rest of the US. The largest church in our university town is 6000+. They have less than 200 college students which is a very minimal percentage. We must create a collegiate missiology if we are to turn the tide in this nation. Revolutions start at the university level. Thank you for drawing attention to the complete and utter lostness within our universities. I am looking forward to the next installments.
    Thank you,

  12. Cody Lorance   •  

    I appreciate your response, Bruce. I must say however that I find it fundamentally unhelpful to your (our) cause to utilize UPG metaphorically. Most readers (and retweeters) don’t understand the metaphor and simply become confused. As a missiologist who travels widely teaching on on the topic, I can testify that indeed there is much resulting confusion. I hear all the time about students, unwed mothers, gangs, homosexuals, Mississippians, bikers, and more who are all apparently unreached people groups. It is sad really because I think it tends to start with well-intentioned leaders using the phrase metaphorically or ignorantly, but it leads to a broader populace who just doesn’t get it. This is more of a problem when one considers that people group terminology is grounded in Biblical concepts (panta ta ethne, etc) and thus misunderstanding signals not only missiological but Biblical confusion. Townsend, McGavran, Winter and the like unearthed the term over time as a service to the Church through much hard and faithful work — making a long overdue correction to our English readings of Scripture. I think it is incumbent on today’s leaders to work to preserve their efforts.

    If I may, I suggest that the academy is a “sphere of society” and, in some North American cities and many nations a genuinely Unreached one (less than 2% evangelical). Or perhaps it is more accurate to utilize WCD terminology and argue that in many cases the academy is a part of the “unevangelized world”. Again, I would urge you to modify your series so as to avoid the misuse of UPG. I believe doing so will better serve the Body of Christ and model careful missiological communication which is our denomination is very frequently accused of not exhibiting.

  13. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nate, great to hear from you! Thank you for joining the conversation. Great point about revolutions starting at the university level.

  14. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Cody, hey man. Thanks for your reply. We agree on a lot more than we disagree. I checked out your blog. Good stuff! Here’s where we agree: The academy is best classified as a “sphere,” and that is how I classify it in my lectures, articles, and so forth. I also agree that we’ve got to evangelize and plant churches among unreached and especially unreached/unengaged people groups. I further agree that reaching a UUPG in Nigeria is different than reaching “bikers” or “cowboys” in the USA. However, in a blog format, I think i still like using the “UPG” metaphor for the subtitle of the first installment. I think it strikes the reader’s ears/eyes in a significant manner.. Its a simile: the university is “like” a PG in that it involves unique conceptual languages and sub-culture. for this reason, we have to work hard to cross those barriers. Its also a metaphor: the reason metaphors have power is precisely because they’ve been taken out of their ordinary context and been put to work in a new context. For limited use in a blog format, i like the UPG language. In my lectures, I “UPG” in its sociological and anthropological sense, as you did above. With all that said, its entirely possible that the overall effect of my metaphor is more negative than positive. I’ve been wrong before! Thanks for holding my feet to the fire.

  15. Abidan Paul Shah   •  

    Great stuff! Boniface and others like him came out of the Irish monasteries and went among the most unreached people groups of the time – the Picts, the Angles, the Saxons, the Gauls, and the Frisians. The University is the most unreached of our times. Can’t wait to read the rest of the blog!

  16. Rachel   •  

    Lets cut down the tree!!!!!!

  17. Michael Palmer   •  

    Hello Bruce,
    I have been saying this from the pulpit for years now. If we do not engage at the Academy we are done. Thanks for your insight and your obvious desire to reach this culture for Christ. All three are timely articles. Mike

  18. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Abidan, Rachel, and Michael, thank you for checking in with us at BtT, and for your encouragement.

  19. John Lambert   •  

    Gotta say that I agree with Cody and Aaron on the use of the term Unreached People Group. It may work strike the readers eyes and ears but it is a hard earned term that deserves to stay within its original context.

    It can’t be said enough that there are still over 7000 upgs that have little to no access to the Gospel. They couldn’t hear if they wanted to hear. Over 3,000 of those groups have no one trying to engage them at all.

    I don’t believe it is helpful at all to use it as a simile or metaphor given the present reality of the 2.89 billion who are still waiting.

    That being said, reaching the universities in America does matter.

  20. John Brooks   •  

    Password given to website upon request.

    Bruce, I do not sense that you are nearly as concerned about what we call the university community as you are about what it is that needs to be done. Please correct me if I am wrong. In his book A Christian Critique of the University, (1990) Dr. Charles Habib Malik, former President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, had this to say about the university and its global impact.
    “The universities, directly and indirectly, dominate the world; their influence is so pervasive and total that whatever problem afflicts them is bound to have far reaching repercussions…. If the university today dominates the world, if Jesus Christ is who the church and the Bible proclaim him to be, and if we happen to believe that what the church and the Bible claim about Jesus Christ is the truth, then how can we fail, not only to raise the question of what Jesus Christ thinks of the university, but to face the equally urgent demand: what can be done? We are dealing with the power that dominates the world; how can we then rest without seeking to ascertain where Jesus Christ stands with respect to this power? The university and Jesus Christ–these are the two inseparable foci of our thought.”
    Though the book is a bit dated, the idea nor the urgency for what needs to be done is not.
    I have been working with university students in different capacities for the past 40 years. I have some thoughts and ideas about what the future holds and how to approach meeting the need and I am eager, Bruce, to follow your thoughts on this.

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